A legend of the labor movement stepped into the turmoil engulfing organized labor in California on Tuesday, pressing the new head of the Service Employees International Union to call off the war that has been raging on the West Coast over control of union workers.
In an open letter, Dolores Huerta wrote President Mary Kay Henry, thanking her for putting an end to SEIU's "mistaken campaign of aggression" against UNITE HERE, but charging the union with "a coordinated effort by SEIU leaders in California to deny thousands of healthcare workers their federally-protected right to organize with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW)." [UPDATE: Scroll down for the SEIU response.]
Huerta, the matriarch of organized labor, is perhaps the most respected figure in western labor circles, often referred to as "the female Cesar Chavez" for co-founding the United Farm Workers. Huerta first endorsed the NUHW's campaign in May 2009. Her letter raises the profile of the issue for Henry, who is now responsible for the campaigns launched by her predecessor, Andy Stern. Henry became president of SEIU in April, defeating a Stern protégé for the position.
SEIU's campaign to take over UNITE HERE, a union of hospitality workers and other employees, ended when it largely surrendered last week. SEIU spent millions in the failed effort that has lasted roughly a year and a half, distracting attention and resources during the most active congressional session since the mid-1960s. Labor's top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, has meanwhile gone nowhere and health care reform was paid for in significant part by taxing high-cost health insurance plans that labor had won for its membership in the past.
"One could say that Henry had the political courage to do what Barack Obama has failed to deliver in Afghanistan, which is to withdraw from their predecessor's misguided conflict. SEIU cannot be happy with the exact terms of the deal, but Henry made her allies happy by getting it done," writes Randy Shaw, who has covered the union war for San Francisco's BeyondChron.
The UNITE HERE war began when SEIU tried to take over both UNITE and HERE; UNITE, which represents garment workers in a declining industry, was open to the new relationship, but HERE, made up largely of hospitality workers, was not. (Background from a former SEIU organizer is here.)
The SEIU has a different take on the controversy. "Despite being discredited in a court of law, NUHW officals continue to wage a smear campaign of the union that threw them out for misusing members' dues. It's misrepresentation of the failed merger of UNITE HERE is another example," said one SEIU official. "UNITE and HERE broke up. UNITE, which renamed itself Workers United, affiliated with SEIU. As in many divorces, there were hard feelings and ugliness on all sides, but those issues have been amicably resolved and each of our unions are focused on solving the challenges facing workers. What's NUHW doing? Still attempting raids of SEIU members."
By settling the UNITE HERE campaign, SEIU frees up resources for the battle with NUHW. In September, 45,000 Kaiser Permanente workers will vote whether to organize with NUHW or SEIU, which moved in and took over the union's leadership.
Huerta accuses SEIU of thuggish tactics in attempting to wrest control of the workers. Writes Huerta:
I recently visited four Kaiser medical centers in Northern and Southern California, in order to meet with healthcare workers and lend my support. In every facility, I witnessed identical conduct by SEIU staff. Workers met in the cafeteria--a public space in the hospital where their right to talk about the union is protected by federal law. Every time workers met to talk about NUHW, SEIU staff surrounded them and began chanting and yelling insults, refusing to let workers talk, and being so disruptive that Kaiser security (sometimes the local police) had to shut down the entire cafeteria.
Each time workers were ordered out of a cafeteria, your staff cheered. These disruptions are clearly a planned tactic to stop workers from organizing their union by denying them the right to talk with their co-workers in the one public space in the hospital. An SEIU planning memo actually instructs staff and members to "Create WWIII"--in California hospitals--in order to drive out NUHW supporters.
This is no surprise; in previous election campaigns the National Labor Relations Board has filed charges against SEIU organizers for intimidation and harassment of NUHW supporters. Three courts have upheld a restraining order against an SEIU staff member who made death threats against a Kaiser social worker while trying to prevent her from talking with me.
UPDATE: The SEIU's Michelle Ringuette responds: "Rhetoric aside, the facts matter. In a terrible economy, 43,000 SEIU-UHW members who work at Kaiser have won industry-leading pay, 9% raises over next 3 years, protected healthcare benefits through 2013 and job security. NUHW officials - ousted from SEIU in 2009, found liable in federal court for their efforts to destroy SEIU-UHW and fined $1.57 million - continue to try to undermine Kaiser workers and the gains they've earned. SEIU-UHW will stand side by side with these workers and defend their 65-year proud history of quality care and jobs at Kaiser."